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Migrant children: a specific protection system tailored to their needs

6 Nov 2013 Trafficking, abuse and exploitation, Child Protection...Various, Switzerland
Congrès sur la Protection des jeunes migrants en Suisse et dans le monde - 4 novembre 2013, Berne.

Terre des hommes (Tdh) is active in 34 countries defending children’s rights. Whether they are war refugees, fleeing poverty in their home country, forced to leave their village or escaping a natural catastrophe, children need to be protected against the risk of exploitation and abuse, as well as trafficking and violence. As part of the international campaign Destination Unknown and one month after the United Nations High Level Dialogue on international migration and development, Terre des hommes (Tdh) and terre des hommes schweiz held a congress in Bern on 4th November concerning the protection of child migrants in Switzerland and all over the world.

In 2013 the number of migrants worldwide was set at 232 million. If all of these migrants were to settle in just one country, then this country would be the fifth most densely population country on the planet. Of these 232 million, 33 million are under the age of 20. Some manage to move around, find work and live a safe and dignified life. However, the road to migration is sometimes very long and treacherous and the most vulnerable children (in particular those who are unaccompanied) become disorientated and are easy targets for criminals. Without a specific and adapted form of protection they are not able to assert their rights and are exposed to the many risks and consequences of migration: trafficking, exploitation through work, sexual exploitation, lack of legal protection, discrimination, rupture from social and family environment, no access to education, etc.

Mixed migration flows

There are many reasons why children become migrants. Migration cases vary according to the child and the country of origin: some have left home to look for a more lucrative job; others are fleeing war or the terrible consequences of a natural disaster. Children may also run away from a political regime which discriminates against them and are therefore potentially condemned by the legal system in their country. In all cases, as Ignacio Packer, Secretary General of Terre des hommes International Federation (TDHIF) reminds us, “child migration is never a voluntary act”.

Children as a distinct group requiring specific care

Every year, between 200 and 500 unaccompanied minors (UM) arrive in Switzerland in the hope of being granted asylum. Under the International Convention on Children’s Rights, Switzerland is obliged to provide special protection for children who are seeking asylum. Tdh points out, however, that “some of the children’s basic rights are not respected” and that “before being migrants they are first and foremost children”.

These children require special protection but the laws of the host country are not always up to date. The legal categorization is often too rigid, and, depending on the “box” by which we identify the child’s situation, assistance may be hindered by migration experts being confused and services oversubscribed.

Solutions to serve the child’s best interests

In order to respond to the specific needs of migrant children, certain procedures must be improved and tailored measures should be implemented. For example, the Netherlands has set up a system whereby children are supervised by tutors, thus increasing the likelihood of successful migration. Belgium has set up a system of exchanging knowledge with the countries of origin. This makes it easier to identify why a child the child came to Belgium and to collect objective information regarding the child’s situation. In addition, the competencies of professionals and migration actors need to be strengthened and the conditions in which such competencies are received must be improved: conditions must be dignified, tailored to needs and in line with Children’s Rights. Pierre Cazenave, regional head of Tdh for children’s rights in Central and Eastern Europe, adds that it is important to “name the competent authorities”. National laws must be adapted and respond to the complexity of migration, rather than simply kicking the ball into someone else’s field.

The experience in Switzerland of an asylum seeker who is a minor

Part of the congress was dedicated to the story of Louvain Luvualu, born in 1997 in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Standing up at the desk, a little nervous because all eyes were on him, he told us his story. In April 2012, following political tensions he fled his country and sought asylum in Switzerland. After spending time at the Registration and Procedural Centre in Vallorbe (Vaud), he then spent around three months in Bern at the centre for asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors. Here he learnt to speak German and when someone in the audience asked him what he was doing now he replied “I am at school; all is well”. This says a lot about the simple – but essential – needs of young migrants.

Terre des hommes is launching a national campaign to fight child exploitation. Find out more about our programme and join us in the fight by making a donation.

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